Suanne Braun – I Have Life

A few days ago I had the privilege of chatting to Suanne Braun who is currently starring in I Have Life: Alison, 20 Years On.

I Have Life: Alison, 20 Years On  is the story of Alison Botha which is currently showing at the Auto and General Theatre on the Square in Sandton. Most South Africans will remember the time 20 years ago when Alison’s story hit the media. She survived a shockingly harrowing and brutal rape and attack in Port Elizabeth, went on to see the rapists get convicted and to become a motivational speaker. The story is one of triumph and is portrayed incredibly by the incredibly versatile and well known Suanne Braun. Suanne Braun made her professional debut in 1988 working as a TV presenter in her native South Africa.  She was signed by the William Morris Agency in America  and has appeared in a number of American television shows including the sci fi series Stargate SG-1 in which she played goddess Hathor.

Theatre credits during this time include Private Lives for which she was nominated for Best Actress, Things We Do For Love, The Secret Lives Of Henry And Alice, Echoes, Offbeat Broadway and Easy To Love – The Cole Porter Story in which Braun played Cole Porter’s wife, Linda Porter.

Since moving to London, Braun has continued to work in theatre and television. West End credits have included the role of Tanya in Mamma Mia, Fraulein Kost in Rufus Norris’ award winning production of Cabaret and Onassis starring Robert Lindsay.

She is currently in South Africa appearing as Alison Botha in “I Have Life” until August 30. 

My hubby Damian and I saw the show the night before I met Suanne. 

I’m still quite speechless about the show. It’s totally like anything I’ve ever seen before.  It’s one of the most intense things. The production, the acting was fantastic.  I’m so glad I saw it. Alison Botha could be any one of us really. 

That’s why it’s so important to tell her story, because she isn’t somebody rich and famous, she isn’t a political figure, she isn’t a religious icon like the Dalai Lama. She’s an ordinary woman who is living an ordinary life and these two worlds collided. 

So we’ve got I Have Life playing in Woman’s Month, you’re playing in Joburg which is known as the murder capital of the world. Did you do that intentionally?  I admire the courage and the statement behind this.

Source: Twitter @SuanneBraun

Ja. It was mainly Maralin Vanrenen the director who wanted to start a festival for women and she wanted to launch it during women’s month and the whole way this project has come together has just been quite magical and blessed. On 9 August 2013, women’s day, the woman who  funded our production passed away, and so her partner put the money towards I Have Life, so it’s been independently funded by a woman who was very active politically and involved with rape crisis and stuff like that. 

So yes, it was a very conscious decision to try and raise awareness to the epidemic of violence that is worldwide. It’s everywhere. It  happens to be a South African story, but we feel it’s a very universal story. 

It’s playing in Johannesburg until 30 August. We are hoping it’s going to Cape Town, but we don’t have a definite date. We’re willing it to happen. We don’t have a venue yet, but what we’d LIKE to do is take it to Cape Town, Grahamstown, Edinburgh, London. After that, whoever else wants us.

It must take so much courage to do that show. Where do you get the courage from?

The courage really comes from Alison. During rehearsals every time I felt freaked out or scared of doing certain things, I had to remind myself that I am an actress, just playing the role. This actually happened to her, so when I get nervous that’s what I think about and all my nerves go away and I do it for her. 

She is amazing, she has been very hands on with the project. She’s come to see it six or seven times. She’s coming back next week. And of course when we call her up on stage at the end, you can see people’s mouths dropping. Because not everybody knows her story. 20 years is a long time. Though most people know her name, a lot of people don’t actually know the details or they haven’t read the book and so they can’t remember, they know that she was raped and attacked, but when you present it in this form it’s an eye opener. 

And there’s a new generation of people. The whole production was quite amazing. How the sound effects were done. 

One of the big challenges with the piece was presenting her thoughts. Another one was that a lot of the action happens in a car. To me whenever you bring a car on stage it starts going into comedy and musical theatre territory. So we had this massive challenge on how do we present realistically a car and also make it scary and powerful. It was Maralin’s idea to use beanbags. When I first heard it I went “what?” but it actually works really well, because of course they signify pebbles on the beach, stones, rocks, gravel, cushions, car. They can be multifunctional.

Suanne with Alison

It’s about Alison’s story, I feel very strongly about her story, and of course as a woman I’m very offended by the violence that is globally perpetrated against women. I feel very strongly about her story and her triumph. For me it’s about her survival.  Attitudes need to change, men need to be educated, myths need to be dispelled like raping a virgin will cure you of AIDS, all that stuff. So it’s a multifaceted issue and not one that will be easily solved but I think if we can just raise awareness that it’s one voice. Ali tells a lovely story about a man walking on a beach and in the distance he sees another man bending down and putting something in the sea. As he gets closer he sees this man is picking up starfish, putting them in the sea and he says excuse me, what are you doing? And the guy says saving the star fish. They can’t breathe out of the water. So the guy says there are thousands. You are just one man, you can’t make a difference. And the man says it makes a difference that one. That’s sort of how I feel. That’s initially why she started to tell her story. She said if I can make a difference to one other person. We always SMS after the show and she said your story is so astonishing that it is affecting people, even with me as you.  They come and see it and go “my god.”

Have you worked with any of the cast before?

No, never. And now I can’t imagine ever not being with them. I’ve worked with Maralin twice before very successfully and this idea was born a year ago when we were sitting on the South Bank in London having a lunch and we started to talk about this idea. We keep looking at each other and pinching ourselves and saying “My God we actually made it happen.”  Interestingly the only one Maralin didn’t know was David de Beer, the guy who plays Theuns.  She had a very clear idea who she wanted to be in it. She suggested Zak Hendrikz, Clayton Boyd and Shaleen  Tobin right from the beginning and the minute they walked in I went yup, we’ve got our cast. They’re all brilliant, absolutely brilliant. 

Suanne Braun and Zak Hendrikz as Alison and Frans.
Source: Twitter @SuanneBraun

Zak Hendrikz interested me. To be able to act that part (the part of one of the rapists). Is he really quite a nice guy?

He is so lovely, and what’s really interesting is because I didn’t know him, he came in to audition and he blew us away. He was terrifying in the audition and he was the first guy who didn’t go for the safe option, to shout a lot and play evil and one of the things Alison had said to us is he was never like that. He was quite charming in the sense of “I’m not going to hurt you”.  He kept lying to her, he kept saying I’m not going to do anything to you – all of which was rubbish.  He got in that car with the express intention of killing her. So we needed somebody who could be menacing without shouting. After we cast him, we became friends on Facebook as you do and I went onto his page, and I was like – what? He’s a musical theatre actor. He’s a beautiful singer.  He’s an Afrikaans guy who sings and dances, tap dances, I was absolutely floored. I think he’s doing Ballade vir ‘n Enkeling next. He’s incredibly talented. They all are.  Zak was saying it’s quite interesting, when he comes into the bar afterwards, a lot of women won’t look at him and he’s nothing like that.   Shaleen is remarkable, she slips in and out of character. David is committed and so menacing as Theuns. He’s the loveliest guy off stage.  Clayton is just wonderful as Tiaan and has such a presence on stage.

The story of the two guys before the attack, how was that researched? 

Some of it is imagined, some of it is pieced together by what we know happened. The conversation that they had is made up but we do know that they drank heavily all day. When they were arrested there was a tally of what they’d been drinking and they’d had something like 4 bottles of sherry, 18 beers. They drank all day. 

The fact that they are Satanists was true. So we had taken facts that we knew were true and they had talked openly. One of their other victims who they raped but didn’t attack had come forward during the trial and said that in her company they had talked about the next girl that they would rape they would kill. They had talked quite openly in their circle about taking a pretty girl with a nice car and killing her. 

Then when they abducted Alison they were convinced they’d killed her. So what’s very interesting about the whole thing is that when they were caught the next day, when they were so sure that she was dead, they were making food with the knife. I mean everything in the play is factual, apart for the conversations slightly imagined, but we know that they were drunk, hanging out together, and that one split off and went to the club. That’s why he was on his own when he abducted her.  In  fact another woman came forward and said earlier that Sunday night at about 7pm, she was parking her car, and she saw these two guys come up behind the car, one on either side, and they were going to abduct her, and Frans looked away for a split second and in that split second she locked her door and went. So when the news broke of Alison, that gives me goosebumps talking about it. She said when the news broke of Alison she realised that it could have been her. It was going to be her. 

Unfortunately life time prisoners now have an opportunity to clear their name and get parole. They’ve now been up for parole a few times. They’ve just been up for parole and it was denied but they will be up again in 2015. 

Have audience members said to you this is how they feel, or –

Suanne in Mamma Mia. Source:

Oh, ja. We’ve had an incredible reaction. We’ve had a standing ovation every night.  People have been deeply deeply moved and affected and I think interestingly men have been completely rattled. I’ve had friends come and watch, who’ve said things like, my friend’s partner said at one point he didn’t want to hold her hand, he felt so ashamed. Men are so disgusting. He said he felt powerless afterwards. 

What he said, it’s, because the rape statistics are flung in your face every day, when it’s just a number, we don’t tend to comprehend – when you see somebody’s personal journey on a story and the fact that she firstly miraculously physically recovered but then her internal recovery and the fact that she’s never once shied away from what happened. She’s never gone “it’s my fault”. She’s said this is what happened to me. I didn’t ask for it, and you can also do it. I think something about that for the guys that I’ve seen who come and see it, have just been kind of deeply profoundly affected. 

Maybe it will make them into better men or inspire them to raise better sons.

I hope so. Alison has two sons and she’s very open about that. She wants to raise better men. I think it’s a global challenge. I think men in a way have lost their way a bit. I know before this play I was talking to a friend of mine who was doing a brilliant play in London, about the pornography epidemic in schools and how these kids 7 – 9 are sexting each other and downloading pornography.  I find that terrifying. 

There’s no policing on the internet, it’s free game. Although it’s wonderful, it’s horrific. I saw something yesterday on Facebook where somebody went what is the world coming to that you can watch somebody being beheaded online. I will not watch that video. I won’t.  It just gives them power and it’s exactly what they want us to do.  I think the world is unfortunately in a very unhappy place. 

That comes back to the point of my blog basically. I was moved to start this because I want to give awareness to people, organisations, that’s what you’ve done, you’ve tweaked the golden thread of humanity – how does that feel, that must feel incredible. You’re inspiring better men, women to be more aware –

It’s been the most incredible experience of my acting career. I’ve been doing it since I was 19 and I’m 46 so a pretty long timeI think it was because of Alison. She profoundly affects people in her life and I am so grateful so it’s an honour to do this piece. Even though I am physically covered in huge bruises and ache everywhere and I wake up in the morning and I’m like – I can’t wait to do it and although it’s a difficult piece to do, and though it’s a hard place to live with during the day, I just feel so honoured to be telling her story. 

The bruises aren’t just from the guys, it’s being pushed out the car, it’s crawling on the floor, it’s landing. We choreographed that scene like a dance so both David and Zak are deeply sensitive to every physical movement they do. And on the rare occasions where I’ve hurt them or vice versa, they’ve been incredibly, immediately afterwards they will come up and ask if I’m okay. Zak was saying that it’s been a massive challenge, he said everything else he’s ever played in his life, you have some kind of reference, but these guys are psychopaths, so he doesn’t.  He said that in a weird way initially it was very hard. Then of course when Alison came up and met all of us, for all of us it unlocked something in us. All of our performances were quite static, if you like and then just by talking to her and getting little snippets of information from the smallest details we let go. Sometimes it’s the weirdest thing that triggers something.

Ja. I mean, that thing about the moon. I don’t think I’m ever going to look at the moon the same again. (the moon lights the way and gives Alison direction)

That was part of her saving.   

How would you say the South African audiences who are used to lighter things handled it? We are mature enough –

The response has been  an amazing outpouring of love. The last time I was on stage was 12 years ago at Montecasino doing Private Lives, but I’ve actually lived out of the country for 25 years.  The audience reaction has been brilliant and it’s been fascinating for me, because we’ve talked about it so much and we’ve had a lot of press coverage and attention. I’ve tried really hard to go please come and see it because it’s triumphant. What happened was hideous, but she was triumphant. 

This was Chris Avant-Smith’s  fault because he told me I should try and get an interview –

He’s been such an advocate for us. Thank you Chris!

He’s wonderful.  

People have come I think in spite of themselves. Several times people have come up to me afterwards and said they didn’t want to come and see this, specially men, but I’m so glad I did.

We’re all victims in some way of some form of crime, most of us.  So maybe this is people realising we can overcome.

Front cover of Alison Botha’s book I Have Life

And that you always have a choice. One of the things that Alison said very early on is that she wouldn’t allow herself to think further than moment by moment and when they turned the ignition off and parked, and she kind of obviously, she never thought they would hurt her, but she said she couldn’t stand it, so she just  said “now what”, and when he said “we want sex”, she in that one moment kind of, she said like my body knew what was coming but my brain just went you have to detach and in that moment she thought I will not give you my soul. You can have my body, you can use it. It’s just my body, it’s not my soul. It’s not me. And to me that’s one of the most astonishing things – but that she instantly – because she knew she couldn’t overpower them. So physically she went right, I will not be  a victim. You can’t touch who Ali is. And that for me is, just, the bravery is amazing. 

I must admit, I knew the story but only three weeks ago I realised it was white guys who did it and it actually blew my preconceptions out of the water.  

That’s one of the reasons I want the story to travel. I think for two reasons. One I think in 1994 as well, all of our preconceptions were high, at a time when the country was just changing. Of course, part of the reason she didn’t think she would be hurt was because they were white. Which shows you how wrong we can be. And he kept saying don’t worry, I’m not going to hurt you. 

You go through this thinking I’m open minded and then you realise you thought it would be black guys. 

One of the main reasons I want this to travel is because I’d like to see a South African story that isn’t necessarily political but a universal story.  This is about the human spirit, triumphing over adversity. Her story for me is as powerful as people like Schindler’s list. People who took horrific situations and made them human. Where their spirits would not be defeated. 

I don’t know if you saw the thing about Joburg being the most unfriendly city in the world which I think is rubbish –

So do I. I think it’s total bull shit, one of the first things I said – everybody is so friendly.  When I first got back here, I spent 25 years growing up here, so in some ways it’s different and in some ways it’s the same. There were things that looked different but I found people very very friendly.  Truly as a returning South African very friendly. 

Suanne as Hathor in Stargate

You’ve done Mamma Mia, Silk Stalkings. Stargate. I’m a geek.  I’m watching Wil Wheaton in Star Trek at the moment. Dr Who, Big Bang Theory, I love them all.  But tell me about Stargate. I hear there are Stargate Conventions that people go to.  That must be so much fun. Plus I’m a MacGyver fan, and Richard Dean Anderson was in it. 

Stargate for me in a way also changed my life, because it’s probably the role I got the most recognition for in the US. And the fans are so loyal. They’re the most loyal people. On our opening night of I Have Life, a Stargate fan who comes to everything I do,  who obviously lives in the UK and couldn’t get here sent me flowers. This is somebody I don’t really know. She’s a fan of my work. I tweeted her and I said thank you so much. I was so touched by that and on Twitter it’s like a family. They are remarkably supportive. The conventions are astonishing. I still can’t quite believe that people want to see or hear anything about me. I just did a huge one in Germany, 8,000 fans. It was great, we had all the principals, so it was Rick me, Michael Shanks, we were all there. They were great fun. It’s brilliant, because the fan base is so loyal at Stargate Cons especially. And of course Roland Emmerich the director is doing a feature film of the whole, STargate 1, 2 and 3. It’s been amazing and I’m going to Australia and New Zealand for a convention. I tweeted recently to some of the Stargate fans, there’s never been one here.  The fans need to galvanize and get together and do it. 

I’m assuming that like me you grew up watching MacGyver on TV and I heard about a movie with Pierce Brosnan as well.

It’s called Survivor and it’s out next year. It’s hardly me and Pierce Brosnan. I’m in it for a short segment. It’s got a very good cast. I was saying to my husband recently it’s so nice to play somebody nice, because I’ve basically made a career out of playing baddies. It’s nice to play somebody really lovely and kind.  I’d actually met Pierce before, he came to see Mamma Mia. When I was in Mamma Mia, he was invited to come and see the stage show. To see what it was about. So he came back stage and met us all and had chats.  All of us, they used a lot of the London cast to do soundtracks and backing vocals. 

Do you have any specific performances or people that have been a major influence?

I’ve done so many different things, I’ve done everything from TV presenting, musicals, straight theatre. There isn’t really one thing. I have actors I admire, whose work I admire, and just my family and my gorgeous husband.  Those are the guiding lights and now my lovely Ali, these are the people who guide me every day. 

Follow Suanne on Twitter for updates on her career: @SuanneBraun

This is a show you need to see. Go and see it at The Auto and General Theatre on the Square until 30 August.

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Writer, transcriber, proofreader, editor, lover of the arts.

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